Nikon D3100 Review

Using the Nikon D3100

Record Mode

Flip the power switch and the D3100 is ready to start taking photos almost instantly (even with the dust reduction feature turned on).

Autofocus speeds depend on several factors, but mainly 1) whether you're using live view or the viewfinder and 2) what lens is attached. I was very impressed with the AF performance of the D3100 when using the kit lens and optical viewfinder. Wide-angle focus times were around 0.1 - 0.3 seconds, with telephoto delays of 0.4 - 0.8 seconds. Low light focusing was very good, with focus times generally staying under a second (thank you super-bright AF-assist lamp). It's a different story if you're using the camera's live view feature, though. As I mentioned earlier, focus speeds are in the seconds -- anywhere from one to three. Low light focusing is slow and usually does not result in focus lock, since the camera cannot use the AF-assist lamp. Thus, you'll probably want to stick to the viewfinder in most situations.

You won't find shutter lag to be an issues on the D3100, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal.

After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.

Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D3100:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB SD card (optional)
4608 x 3072
RAW + Fine JPEG 19.8 MB 151
RAW 12.9 MB 226
Fine 6.8 MB 460
Normal 3.4 MB 914
Basic 1.7 MB 1700
3456 x 2304
Fine 3.9 MB 815
Normal 2.0 MB 1500
Basic 1.0 MB 3000
2304 x 1536
Fine 1.8 MB 1700
Normal 900 KB 3300
Basic 500 KB 6000

The D3100 has the ability to take a RAW image alone, or with a Large/Fine JPEG. The D3000 used to save a Basic quality JPEG in RAW+JPEG mode, so this is a nice improvement.

A typical help screen in the menus

The D3100's menu system is identical to the one on its predecessor. It's attractive, easy to navigate, and there are help screens for nearly every option (see above). The menu is divided into five tabs: playback, shooting, setup, retouch, and Recent items. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of menu options:

Playback menu
  • Delete (Selected, select date, all)
  • Playback folder (Current, all)
  • Display mode - what is shown in playback mode
    • Detailed photo info
      • Highlights (on/off)
      • RGB histogram (on/off)
      • Data (on/off)
    • Transition effects (Slide in, zoom/fade, none) - for moving between photos
  • Image review (on/off) - post-shot review
  • Rotate tall (on/off) - automatically rotate images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • Frame interval (2, 3, 5, 10 secs)
    • Transition effects (Zoom/fade, cube, none)
  • Print set (Select/deselect, deselect all) - for DPOF print marking
Shooting menu
  • Reset shooting options - back to defaults
  • Set Picture Control (Standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape) - see below
  • Image quality (see above chart)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • White balance (Auto, incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity settings
    • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, Hi 1/6400, Hi 2/12800)
    • ISO sensitivity auto control (on/off)
      • Maximum sensitivity (200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, Hi 1, Hi 2) - the highest you want the ISO to go
      • Minimum shutter speed (1 - 1/2000 sec) - minimum shutter speed you'll allow
  • Active D-Lighting (on/off) - see below
  • Auto distortion control (on/off) - reduces distortion with CPU lenses; see distortion test later in review for more
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - for exposures over 8 seconds, or when the ISO is over 400
  • AF area mode - details below
    • Viewfinder (Single-point, dynamic area, auto area, 3D-tracking)
    • Live view/movie (Face priority, wide area, normal area, subject tracking)
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • Metering (Matrix, center-weighted, spot)
  • Movie settings
    • Quality (1080p24, 720p30, 720p25, 720p24, 424p24)
    • Sound (on/off)
  • Built-in flash (TTL, manual) - the second option lets you select the flash strength, from full to 1/32)
Setup menu
  • Reset setup options
  • Format memory card
  • LCD brightness (-3 to +3)
  • Info display format (Classic, graphic) - choose the style and color of the info screen shown on the LCD
  • Auto information display (on/off) - whether the info display turns on when you halfway-press the shutter release
  • Clean image sensor
    • Clean now
    • Clean at startup/shutdown (Startup, shutdown, both, off)
  • Mirror lock-up - for manual cleaning
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • HDMI
    • Output resolution (Auto, 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080i)
    • Device control (on/off) - whether you can operate the D3100 in playback mode with your TV remote
  • Flicker reduction (50, 60 Hz) - reduces flicker and banding when using live view under certain types of lights
  • Time zone and date
    • Time zone
    • Date and time
    • Date format (Y/M/D, M/D/Y, D/M/Y)
    • Daylight savings (on/off)
  • Language
  • Image comment - attach text comments to your photos
  • Auto image rotation (on/off)
  • Dust off reference photo - for the dust removal feature in Nikon Capture NX 2
  • Auto off timers (Short, normal, long, custom) - choose how long the menus, post-shot review, live view and metering functions run for
  • Self-timer delay (2, 10 secs)
  • Remote on duration (1, 5, 10, 15 mins) - how long the camera waits for a command from the optional remote control
  • Beep (on/off)
  • Rangefinder (on/off) - discussed earlier
  • File number sequence (On, off, reset)
  • Buttons
    • Function button (Image quality/size, ISO sensitivity, white balance, Active D-Lighting)
    • AE/AF-lock button (AE/AF lock, AE lock only, AF lock only, AE lock hold, AF-on)
    • AE lock (on/off) - when on, pressing the shutter release halfway will also lock the exposure
  • Slot empty release lock (Release locked, enable release) - whether a photo can be taken without a memory card installed
  • Date imprint (Off, date, date and time, date counter) - print the date. time, or amount of time until/since a chosen date
  • Storage folder (Select, new, rename, delete)
  • GPS
    • Auto meter-off (on/off) - whether the metering system shuts off after a period of time while the optional GPS is attached
    • Position - shows current long/lat, altitude, heading, and time
  • Eye-Fi upload (Enabled, disabled)
  • Firmware version
Retouch menu (I'll discuss all of these in the playback section)
  • D-Lighting (Low, normal, high)
  • Redeye correction
  • Trim
  • Monochrome (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • Filter effects (Skylight, warm filter, red/green/blue intensifier, cross screen, soft)
  • Color balance
  • Small picture (640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120)
  • Image overlay - combine two RAW images into one
  • NEF (RAW) processing
  • Quick retouch
  • Straighten
  • Distortion control
  • Fisheye
  • Color outline
  • Perspective control
  • Miniature effect
  • Edit movie

Recent Settings

The last twenty menu options you accessed.

While I'll get to the playback and retouch items later, I want to tell you more about some of those shooting settings now.

Adjusting a Picture Control This "grid" shows you how the Picture Controls compare

Let's start with Picture Controls, which have been on Nikon SLRs for a while now. The camera has six preset Controls (standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape), and you can customize them to your heart's content. The following properties can be adjusted in a Picture Control:

  • Quick adjust - lets you adjust the items below by ±2 step at one time
    • Sharpening (Auto, 0 to 9)
    • Contrast (Auto, -3 to +3) - not available when Active D-Lighting is on
    • Brightness (-1 to +1) - not available when Active D-Lighting in on
    • Saturation (Auto, -3 to +3)
    • Hue (-3 to +3)
  • Filter effects (Off, yellow, orange, red, green) - only for monochrome controls
  • Toning (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue green, blue, purple blue, red purple) - each of these can be fine-tuned; only for monochrome

Fine-tuning white balance

The D3100 has a pretty standard set of white balance controls for an entry-level D-SLR. Naturally, it has the usual presets, like incandescent and cloudy, each of which can be fine-tuned (see above). You can also use a white or gray card as reference with the "preset manual" mode. Two things you cannot do on the D3100 are set the color temperature or bracket for white balance.

The camera retains the same Active D-Lighting feature as its predecessor. Quite simply, this feature improves the overall contrast of an image, reducing highlight clipping while brightening shadows. There's just an on and off setting on the D3100 (it's on by default), so you can't choose how much ADL is applied to a photo. Let's see it in action, shall we?

Active D-Lighting off
View Full Size Image
Active D-Lighting on
View Full Size Image

The Active D-Lighting feature works pretty much as-advertised! The shadows in the foreground are brighter, you do get back some highlight detail, as well. Nikon warns that some noise may appear as a result of using this feature, though I didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the above test photo.

What about those AF area modes? For the viewfinder, you've got your choice of single-point (you can select which one), dynamic area (you pick a single point but the camera will use the surrounding points if your subject moves), 3D tracking (for moving subjects), or a fully automatic 11-point mode. Live view AF options include face priority (which works well), wide or normal area AF (you can position the focus point), and subject tracking.

I should also mention the focus modes. You've got single-servo (AF-S) for stationary subjects, continuous-servo (AF-C) for subjects in motion, and an auto-servo mode that will pick between the two. In live view mode, you have a choice of AF-S and full-time servo (AF-F), with the latter always trying to focus (even in movie mode). Naturally, a manual focus mode is also available.

Alright, that does it for menu options, at least for now. Let's move onto our photo tests for a while. All of these were taken with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, except for the night shots, for which I used the Nikon F4.5-5.6, 55 - 300 mm VR lens.

The Nikon D3100 did a very nice job with our macro test subject. The figurine has the smooth appearance that is typical of a D-SLR, yet plenty of detail is still captured. Colors are fairly accurate, though there's a very slight color cast if you look closely. Thankfully, the D3100 has white balance fine-tuning (not to mention RAW support), so if you spend a little time tweaking things, you should be able to get rid of it. I don't see any noise or other artifacting here, nor would I expect to.

The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you're using. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, it's 28 cm. If you think you'll be taking a lot of close-up photos, Nikon makes five dedicated macro lenses, though only three of them support autofocus on the D3100 (the 60, 85, and 105).

For the night shot, I used the new Nikon F4.5-5.6, 55 - 300 mm VR lens, which sells for $399 (and comes in that Costco bundle that I told you about earlier). The photo produced by the D3100 body and 55-300 lens is decent, though on the soft side. There's some highlight clipping and mild purple fringing to be found, as well. Taking photos like this is easy on the D3100, whether you're using the Guide Mode or the manual exposure controls.

Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the D3100 performed across its ISO range in low light situations!

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400 (Hi 1)

ISO 12800 (Hi 2)

The first two crops are very clean, with no noise to be found. There's a slight increase in noise at ISO 400, though it really doesn't start to degrade the quality of the image until ISO 800. Even then, the ISO 800 photo is quite usable, for nearly all print sizes. Things continue to get noisier at ISO 1600, so it's probably best reserved for smaller-sized prints. Details get pretty muddy at ISO 3200, and go downhill rapidly after that.

For nearly all cameras, there's a big benefit to shooting RAW and performing noise reduction on your Mac or PC. Let's use the night scenes from above to see if we can't do that with the ISO 3200 and 6400 photos:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 6400 (Hi 1)

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (ACR)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

There's a definite improvement in the post-processed ISO 3200 images, with noticeably more detail and a bit less highlight clipping. The same can't be said for the ISO 6400 shot, though. While it's sharper, you're not really getting a whole lot of detail back in return.

We'll take a look at the D3100's high ISO performance in normal lighting in a moment.

The D3100 did very well in our redeye test, with no red to be found. The camera uses its very bright AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils, and it did the job here. If you do end up with redeye in your photos, there's a tool in playback mode to remove it.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. You can see what this looks like in the real world in this photo. The good news is that the camera has a built-in distortion reduction system (off by default) which works with modern Nikkor lenses. Let's see what the distortion chart looks like with this feature turned on:

That's quite a bit better! You can also correct for distortion with most decent RAW editing software.

I noticed some very slight corner blurring with the kit lens, but no vignetting (dark corners).

And here's that normal lighting ISO test that I promised earlier. Since this photo is taken in our studio, it's comparable to those taken with other cameras I've reviewed. Remember that the crops below only cover a small portion of the scene, so view the full size photos if you can! And with that, let's take a trip from ISO 100 to 12,800:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400 (Hi 1)

ISO 12800 (Hi 2)

As you can see, everything is very clean (though a bit soft) through ISO 1600. There's a bit of detail loss at ISO 3200, but it won't keep you from making large prints at this setting. Heck, even the Hi 1 setting (ISO 6400) looks very good, which is pretty remarkable for an entry-level D-SLR. The only place you really see noise is when you get to the Hi 2 setting (ISO 12800), at which point you'll be limited to small prints, unless you try shooting RAW.

Can we improve the two "hi" ISO photos by using RAW? Let's see:

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (ACR)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

As you can see, I got much nicer results after spending about a minute loading up the RAW images in Photoshop, running them through NeatImage, and applying a little sharpening. If you're shooting at these two "hi" sensitivities, then I'd recommend doing the same.

Overall, I was pleased with the image quality on the Nikon D3100, especially in terms of high ISO performance. That said, there are a few areas in which things could improve. I found exposure to be accurate, which is a nice change from previous Nikon D-SLRs that I've tested, which always seemed to require some kind of exposure compensation adjustment. The D3100 is prone to highlight clipping, which is especially bad in this photo. Colors look good, with nice saturation that's not over-the-top. My biggest beef with the D3100 is that photos are on the soft side, though the same can be said about most Nikon D-SLRs. It's hard to say if its the lenses I used (which are lower end) or the camera (which could be using too much noise reduction), but it is a bit of a turn-off. You can adjust the in-camera sharpening using Picture Styles, or try closing down the aperture on the lens a bit (the kit lens is sharpest at F8). As you saw above, noise levels are very low on the D3100, with even ISO 6400 being usable without any need for post-processing. Purple fringing is generally caused by the lens you're using, and I found it to be a relatively minor problem with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look our photo gallery -- perhaps printing a few of the photos if you can -- and then hopefully you can decide for yourself if the D3100's photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

The old D3000 didn't have a movie mode. Heck, it didn't even have live view! Nikon has made up for that by giving the D3100 the ability to record Full HD video with continuous autofocus. At the highest quality setting, you'll be recording up to ten minutes of continuous video at 1920 x 1080 (24 frames/second) with monaural sound (the camera doesn't support an external mic). You can take a movie in any of the camera's shooting modes, thanks to its dedicated movie recording button.

Don't need 1080p24 video? Then you can select from two lower resolutions: 1280 x 720 (at 24, 25, or 30 fps) and 640 x 424 (at 24 fps). For these resolutions, the recording time limit is also 10 minutes.

Naturally, you can zoom in and out all you want while you're recording a movie. What's more, the D3100 has the ability to continuously autofocus in movie mode which, in theory, should keep things in focus. In reality, though, the autofocus is sluggish, not very responsive, and noisy (at least with the kit lens). You can see what I mean by watching this video clip which I recorded to illustrate this feature. Oh, and if you're using a VR lens, you'll be able to take advantage of its shake reduction capabilities.

There are no manual controls in movie mode on the D3100 -- everything is fully automatic. In addition to manual exposure controls, a wind filter would've been a nice extra. The one setting you can change is the exposure compensation, but only in the P/A/S modes. The camera can take a photo while you're recording a movie, though there will be a brief pause in the video while the image is saved.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the H.264 codec.

I have two sample movies for you. The first is taken at the 1080p24 setting, while the second was recorded at 720p30. The quality of the Full HD video is just fair, with noticeable artifacting and an overall soft appearance. The 720p movie looks a lot better to my eyes.

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 24 fps, 36.7 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Click to play movie (1280 x 720, 30 fps, 17.4 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

The D3100 has probably the most elaborate playback mode of any digital SLR. Before we get to the interesting features, let me tell you about the basics. They include slideshows (now with transitions), image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. When you're zoomed into an image, you can use the control dial to switch between photos, while keeping the zoom and location intact.

Calendar view Mega thumbnail view

Photos can be viewed one-at-a-time or as thumbnails, with the ability to see as many as 72 on the screen at once. You can also display a calendar view, which allows you to quickly see which photos you took on a specific date.

D-Lighting brightens shadows And color balance gets rid of color casts (or tries to)

Now onto the good stuff, all of which can be found in the Retouch menu. The items here include:

  • D-Lighting - brightens dark areas of a photo; select from low, normal, or high
  • Redeye correction
  • Trim (crop) - you can select an aspect ratio of 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 1:1, or 16:9
  • Monochrome - changes a color photo to black and white, sepia, or cyanotype
  • Filter effects - use virtual skylight, warm, red/green/blue, cross screen, and soft filters
  • Color balance - adjust the color of a photo
  • Small picture - downsize an image
  • Image overlay - combines two RAW images into one
  • NEF (RAW) processing - edit RAW images, see below
  • Quick retouch - uses D-Lighting and also boosts contrast and saturation
  • Straighten - new to the D3100
  • Distortion control - reduce barrel or pincushion distortion in your photos, automatically or manually; new to the D3100
  • Fisheye - a special effect, new to the D3100
  • Color outline - turns a photo into something suitable for a coloring book
  • Perspective control - reduce the distortion caused by taking photos from the base of tall objects (like buildings); new to the D3100
  • Miniature effect - makes a selected area of the photo appear small, with everything else blurred out
  • Edit movie - trim unwanted footage off of the beginning or end of a clip; you can also grab a frame from a movie and save it as a still image

That's quite a collection! And I'm glad to see that Nikon put a movie editing feature on the D3100 -- every camera should have one!

RAW processing in playback mode

As with its predecessor, the D3100 lets you edit and convert RAW images right on the camera. You can change the image size and quality, white balance, exposure compensation, and Picture Control setting.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you press up or down on the four-way controller you can get a lot more, as you can see above. Do note that you may need to turn on some of these screens in the playback menu (display mode option).

If you've got the transitions turned off, the D3100 can move from photo-to-photo instantly. While nice to look at, the two transitions slow the process down noticeably.